Five UX Tips for Better Mobile Apps

Ildikó Tuck
August 27, 2015

We have reached the point where if your business doesn’t exist on mobile you are suffering serious disadvantages regardless of what you are selling or providing. Deciding between what to build is a topic that needs its own blog post. Discussing the native app, hybrid app vs mobile website/responsive website topic is a separate one that I wouldn’t like to get into today. For the purposes of this post I will assume that you have decided on the right solution for you and that happens to be a native app. What can you do to ensure its success?

Think about Context

Context is crucial to the success of any app. With the web it’s easy - people will be using it while sitting at a desk or at least sitting with a laptop somewhere. With mobile, it can be any number of places and situations. If you’re building an app for runners, think of what features they can and should access while running. For example, for a runner it’s very useful to know their heart rate, their speed, track their movements on a map, see how many calories they’ve burned and have the ability to share their progress with their peer group. All of this is great to have in a mobile app, but should you have it all present at once? Or does it make sense to have a big “Start/Stop” button that takes up the whole screen? If you go with the start/stop button, how large should it be? What’s the ideal size to prevent accidental taps while in motion, but at the same time prevent the runner from having to stop to activate it? Or, what about a GPS app for mountain climbers? They probably don’t have available hands to fiddle with their device while trying to keep safe. What features are still useful, and how can you ensure that your app is actually usable in the real world?

Empirical Studies

All the questions above can be answered by spending some time with your users. For the running app, it might mean spending a day at a park frequented by runners to see how they act while running, how much they can do while in motion. For the mountain-climbing example, you might hang out at a training centre for mountain climbers, unless you are an unusually adventurous researcher.

Test Ideas Early and Often

The above two methods help with narrowing down the primary focus of the app and ensuring that whatever you are building has a usable, not just useful, idea behind it. Good news: you can start designing! Because of the unique challenges of the restricted screen size and the concentrated focus on a single task, it’s very easy to get mobile apps wrong - designing something that is too convoluted or has too many features with no clear focus. One way to avoid this is to test concepts early. It doesn’t need to be a fancy prototype or an MVP. You can test early concepts on paper, with nothing more required than a few sheets of paper, some scissors and 10 minutes of free time. You can “play the system” by exchanging the various screen states in front of the participant and gather a lot of useful feedback.

Of course, in some cases, for example if your audience is remote, you do need a digital prototype - even so, keeping it simple and fluid is key. You’re testing concepts, not products, in this phase.

Follow Best Practices and Platform Conventions

Another important UX tip when designing for mobile is to know and respect the target devices GUI guidelines. No matter how well-thought out and well-designed your app is, it will not please your users (and in some cases, will not even be approved) if it goes against the guidelines published for the particular platform. Here are the links to the most popular mobile operating system guidelines:

iOS, Android, Windows Phone

Test your Prototypes on an Actual Device, with its Actual Connection

It’s surprisingly easy to miss this last part. We work in offices with excellent internet connections. When testing our interactive prototypes, we might fall into the trap of using the wifi all along. Everything is very responsive, images load quickly - great! But then, after launching our app we discover negative reviews piling up, complaining about the app’s performance. These performance issues can easily be mitigated if we remember to test our product on mobile internet connections before launch.

While this list is in no way exhaustive, I hope you find it helpful with building better mobile apps.

What else would you add to the list? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.